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How Will the Political Landscape Change in California in 2012?

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While January 1st marks the beginning of the new calendar year, for many political wonks Friday, December 30th is a date that holds more meaning. That day kicks off the official start of the new election season in California. Hold onto your hats, voters, candidates and observers, it is going to be an uncertain ride.

Politics and elections in California seem to have become sadly predictable. Members of the public feel, in many cases, that donations carry more sway than votes. Incumbents, who are typically well-financed candidates, generally win re-election. Those incumbents then head to Sacramento for another round of a little game I'll call "Capitol Gridlock." Our elected officials bicker, point fingers, and generally do not do much to help their almost comically low approval ratings.

It is a sad state of affairs. A number of reforms are set to take effect next year, and the question is whether those new laws will bring about positive changes.

As I've often written about here, for the first time in the state's history an independent citizens redistricting commission drew legislative lines. In 2008 and 2010, voters approved two ballot measures which took the power to draw district lines out of the hands of incumbents, who quite obviously have a vested interest in how those lines are drawn.

This election season will likely see the first elections held under the new maps. However, I say likely because those maps, like so many other things in California, may not be put to use. The new lines congressional legislative lines are being challenged in federal court as violating the voting rights act. The new state senate lines are being challenged at the ballot box, with a proposed measure seeking to overturn those lines. The purpose of allowing an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative lines is to produce districts drawn to best represent the people, not to give incumbents a chance at re-election.

Another reform that could make at least some difference in California during the next election season is the open primary, top-two election law. This law provides that any voter can vote for any candidate in an "open primary." The two candidates obtaining the greatest number of votes in that primary, regardless of party affiliation, then proceed to a general election. The purpose of this law is to elect more moderate, consensus oriented officials who will reduce the gridlock in Washington.

Many of the Golden State's political reforms have come back to bite us. The latest and greatest example may be term limits, which forces elected officials out of office for no other reason than that they have served in that office for a certain number of years. Most people would agree that in almost every other area, experience is a good thing. I would, for instance, prefer not to be forced to find a new dentist only because mine has been practicing for more than eight years. If elected officials are doing a bad job, they should be voted out of office, not swept out by the mere fact that they've held that post for some period of time.

But I digress. It remains to be seen whether the new legislative districts (if they are ever used) and open primary law will improve the state of affairs in California. Voters should stay active and alert as the election season kicks off this week.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Find more of her posts here.

Photo by Flickr user prayitno, used under a Creative Commons License.

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